Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Info Hole

“The United States dollar will be worth nothing by the end of next week,” declared my friend Tanel only two weeks ago. Tanel is a very smart, highly-educated Estonian man who loves conspiracy theories. He’s so good with Google that he can uproot the most obscure websites run by paranoid crackpots living with their heaviest furniture pushed tight against the door, loaded shotgun by the bed. The trouble is that Tanel sees little difference between a fanatical website and a newspaper of record. To him, all information is equal.

According to Tanel, the world is run by a cabal of white men in black suits with good manicures who spend their days around a burled oak table discussing what to do with the rest of us. Tanel cites the Illuminati, Freemasons, Wall Street, the Jews. Always the Jews. Name a group, and Tanel will tell you how they’re manipulating us.

Conspiracy theories, as I’ve heard them best described, are convenient for those who can’t be bothered to try to understand the complex world around us. They’re ideal for those who are not actually Masons, have not worked at Bank of America or Merrill Lynch, or don’t have any friends who are Jews. Conspiracy theories are ideal for those who want to believe they have made the conscious choice not to participate in The System. Tanel segregates himself, does not get involved, and then convinces himself he’s outside the club because he was refused entry, though in fact he never even applied for membership. Tanel says they know who he is. Just like they know who I am. Like they know who you are. And none of us will ever get anywhere.

What Tanel refuses to believe is that getting into the corridors of power in the United States (the seat of all evil, according to Tanel) is not that difficult. I’ve tried to persuade him that any American with a university education and a lot of resolve can, in fact, penetrate the sacred corridors of power. The worker starts at the bottom, where his most important responsibility will be to make sure the insignificant Congressman he works for (and has only met once) gets his dry cleaning starched and his Chinese food delivered hot. If the young person is smart, he’ll move up quickly, and sooner or later he’ll find himself in close contact with those who make the actual decisions. At some point, he will have to make a decision: Does he want to be a decision maker himself? Is he willing to make the sacrifices necessary to play that key role? I know a half dozen men and women who have worked hard and penetrated the ranks of the power elite in the United States, some in government, some in corporate America. None, though Tanel says I’m wrong, is the genealogical heir to Thomas Jefferson. None was taken as an infant from his crib and raised as a prince in the palace. All took financial and career risks by moving to a major city and getting a job which was far from glamorous, suffering as a small fish in a big pond, despite the fact each owed over 100,000 dollars on two university degrees.

It is this fundamental truth that Tanel refuses to accept: the evil men in suits behind the curtain were once just regular white guys like us. Instead, Tanel views himself as a helpless passenger in the world, with no chance to drive. With no chance to even suggest the route. Tanel is a lost cause, and I long ago stopped arguing with him. But I sometimes worry that Estonia’s young people may be leaning toward a Tanel-style of easy explanation for everything wrong in our lives. I can’t count the times someone has cited a Michael Moore film or YouTube video as an unassailable explanation for the way things are.

Part of our problem is the Info Hole. Tanel is of the generation whose window on the free world was Finnish television. He says Finnish TV showed him how things in the world really were. I wonder. Finnish TV is possibly better than American TV, but it’s still TV. But I don’t want to blame television. It’s too easy a target. Maybe it’s what Tanel’s reading?

Although the Estonian press has been free to write what it wants since 1991, the major papers still occasionally resemble the neighborhood paper I read growing up in Scarborough, Ontario. It was full of small-town-boy-done-good stories and columns by community blowhards titled “As I See It.” Sometimes Estonian journalism catches a case of Scarboroughitis and devotes the front page to a story on the shape of the NATO table (round), its cost (130,000 EEK), or its provenance (Estonia!), when the real news might more likely be how smart the Estonians were to exploit every opportunity to put Hillary Clinton and Anders Fogh Rasmussen on camera saying in plain English that NATO will defend Estonia if Russia attacks. Given the stories about The Table, I half expected a follow-up feature on the length of the delegates’ turds after their meal (served by Carmen Catering, I read) in the Estonia Concert Hall.

True, sometimes international papers are no better. The New York Times publishes information about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s house in Bermuda (550 square meters) and favorite steak (coffee-rubbed New York strip), but the items are not the stories themselves and the paper stops short of putting them on the front page.

I often wonder where is the real meat for Estonian newspaper stories? I often see stories in the local business press which are rehashed versions of what the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal published the week before. Where’s the regular fruit of hard-core original research and reporting? And what kind of stories is Tanel left to read in his native language? By the very nature of the reporting, Tanel is made to feel like an outsider: the west makes policy; Estonia makes tables.

I once needed to conduct a proper background search before meeting an interview subject and called up an editor friend at an Estonian newspaper to ask to borrow the paper’s LexisNexis subscription. “Estonian journalists don’t fly that high” was the answer I received. The paper had no subscription. (LexisNexis joins five billion vetted sources and is the world’s largest collection of public records, opinions, legal, news, and business information. In a journalist friend’s words: “It eliminates from the equation the millions upon millions of bullshit blog posts written by nutjobs in their parents' basements, and takes you straight to legitimate publications.”)

If we want to carry a public conversation beyond the provenance of the NATO table into the realm of political dialogue, and if I want Tanel to ease up on the conspiracy theories, then some better informational tools to widen the view of our journalists are surely needed.

But that’s a small step, of course, and it isn’t likely to have any impact on Tanel. He’s convinced he’s really on to something now, since he predicted the downfall of the American economy. Of course, he’d been predicting that since he first got internet access, so it was only a matter of time. But he still claims he told me so. Which I guess he did.

The one I’m worried about his 2013 prediction for the violent reversal of the earth’s poles, which will basically wipe out humanity. But since he has inside information (a website he refuses to disclose), he’s contemplating the construction of some sort of ark for his family. They’ll float with the earth’s currents until they hit dry land, where they’ll begin anew, eating their just-add-water spaceman food until their first crops come in. He hasn’t invited me to come along, and I haven’t asked. I know there’s no room for people under the spell of The System. Tanel needs fresh thinkers for his new frontier. People who see the world as it really is.


Illustration by Hilde Kokk De Keizer.